“Greetings from NYC to my home state of New Jersey,” said singer-songwriter Suzzy Roche warmly. This was the opening message she and her daughter, Lucy Wainwright Roche, sent to NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series with their submission of a stunning cover of Patty Griffin’s moving “Mary,” from Griffin’s 1998 album, Flaming Red.
Just in time for Mother’s Day, the song focuses on an unsung caretaker and resonates for this mother-daughter duo by recognizing the essential work of mothers and grandmothers, who are needed more than ever now, during the pandemic. With schools closed and resources limited, nurturers play an increasingly vital role in helping others maintain mental and physical well-being. Additionally, this song serves as a tribute to mothers and grandmothers who have died from COVID-19 and recognizes their crucial contributions to healing the world.
Suzzy Roche says her immediate family is making it through the pandemic “okay” but that “it’s so sad what has happened to this beautiful city of people from everywhere. The best part of the day is 7 p.m., when people lean out their windows and clap for the workers. It always makes me cry.”
She says she sees empty streets outside her window and thinks, “poor New York City.”
Impacted by our new dystopian reality, she says “it’s so weird, especially on a day like today, to see the spring exploding, but have to wear a mask and gloves. It’s a little like ‘Handmaid’s Tale.’ ”
She, of course, is one of three sisters who grew up in Park Ridge and formed the treasured folk group The Roches, who brought us brilliant harmonies and clever, soulful lyrics, and her musical family has grown to include her talented daughter Lucy. Together they have recorded and toured as an engaging and emotive duo.
Touring started early for Lucy, who “spent her childhood on the road with the Roches,” says Roche. “She’s been on the road her whole life.”
She says they picked “Mary” to record for Songs to See Us Through as a way to honor “all the essential workers who are working in New Jersey and elsewhere, because the character of Mary in the song is about a very essential worker, which can sometimes feel like a thankless job … Mary is a matriarchal figure who gets no glory, but looks after others … she is the ultimate essential worker.”
“Patty wrote the song for her grandmother,” says Suzzy. While the song references Jesus and his mother, Mary, as characters in the story, and religious symbolism imbues the lyrics (including the line, “while the angels are singin’ His praises in a blaze of glory, Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place”), I too have read reports that Griffin wrote this song for her grandmother, also named Mary. Her references to Jesus and Mary’s caring relationship and Mary’s suffering can be interpreted as a metaphor for the relationship between children and their parents and grandparents.
Roche says she loves Griffin’s music “because not only does she have a gorgeous voice, but she often writes about unsung heroes, workers, and those who are often left behind.” Her song choice for this series also serves as “a tribute to her (Griffin) and her song.”
You can hear Suzzy and Lucy’s gorgeous voices in the video embedded below. I believe those who are enamored of the Roche sisters’ harmonies will find that this mother-and-daughter team have voices that are striking together, as well. When I first listened to their soulful rendition of “Mary,” the world’s disturbing issues stopped creating their disquieting noise. I was absorbed by their achingly beautiful blend of voices, their solemn delivery and the confident way their unadorned acoustic guitars complemented the vocals. Their intense feelings of love and respect for the women they celebrate were palpable.
Sitting apart from each other — and with a mask, sitting on a piano bench, subtly rooting the performance in the present historical moment — mother and daughter sing:
Mary, you’re covered in roses, you’re covered in ashes
You’re covered in babies, you’re covered in slashes
You’re covered in wilderness, you’re covered in stains
You cast aside the sheet, you cast aside the shroud of another man, who served the world proud …
Mary, she moves behind me
She leaves her fingerprints everywhere
Every time the snow drifts, every time the sand shifts
Even when the night lifts, she’s always there.
For those of us who have lost our mothers, grandmothers and sisters, we know that, on some level, like Mary, they are “always there.”
Suzzy, who lives in Manhattan, and Lucy, who is in Brooklyn, recorded “Mary” in a Weehawken studio, taking a break from isolation to come together to create — and to connect with others through music.
“Lucy and I have been separated for about eight weeks, only occasionally waving from 6 feet away,” says Suzzy, “so it was a big deal for us to get together and sing (and you will see, we still kept a distance!) … Lucy and I are adhering to strict social distancing for the sake of our health and the health of others. It’s been a tough time for us as well as all the others who have lost their jobs, but we’re trying to be hopeful and keep going.”
She says her own parents were “amazing” and “believed in the equality of women. … My mother and grandmother were steady and strong, like the heroine in this song. I pay special attention to what the women in my life say and do. Always have.
“In the last few years, I lost my mother and sister (Maggie Roche) within four months of each other. It was as if I had two mothers, and they both left in a flash. I still can’t believe I have to carry on without them. But I’m inspired to stay strong because of my daughter and her friends, and my niece and nephews, and all the young people who are being affected by this virus. They need us to be strong. And I can only hope to rise to the occasion.”
She adds, “Since Trump was elected, I have felt such grief, I cannot even begin to say. I worry so much for younger people. The day after he was elected, I went to my local Starbucks, which I go to every morning (or used to) because I love the people who work there, and I wept at the sight of them, so beautiful, so at the mercy of this …. well, disgusting, evil, man. That’s at the bottom of everything I feel these days.
“New York City is where I chose to live because it is full of people from all over the world, and different walks of life. Only after Trump was elected did I see racists spewing in the subway and on the street. To me, he IS the virus. Metaphorically, he is a symptom of the larger problem. And oh, yeah: He hates women. So, I have a fierce interest in NOT going back to the 1950s housewife model, which he and the rest of his dying breed are touting.”
This new version of “Mary” feels so authentic partially because Suzzy is so obviously a proud mother who understands that raising a child involves sacrifice, but also produces a reservoir of gifts.
“Lucy is everything to me,” she says. “I’m sure you know what I mean. Having her kept me from being an idiot!”
In 2019, Suzzy honored her late sister Maggie’s memory by putting together a collection of songs written by Maggie titled Where Do I Come From: Selected Songs. “I’m so happy we did it, as painful as it was,” Suzzy says. “People really seem to love it. Maggie had asked me right before she died to ‘do something’ with her music. I was very glad to be able to fulfill that wish for her. And so many people loved her music.”
At the moment, of course, Suzzy and Lucy are unable to do their usual touring. (Their postponed March concert at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair has been rescheduled to March 18, 2021; for information, visit outpostintheburbs.org.)
“That is terrifying, as we are what I’d call ‘working class artists,’ but we’re trying not to panic,” Suzzy says. “We actually started to record a new album in Nashville right before this happened, and we’ve continued to work on it in our separate apartments. We sing and play our parts and send them to each other, and then on down to Nashville to our producer there. It’s been a lifeline to have something to work on, and guess what? It sounds great. So, it’s a real ‘pandemic’ recording and we are planning to release it in October.”
To calm her nerves, Suzzy says, she has been making colorful masks for people who have asked for them. “They’re very pretty. I was surprised I remembered how to sew, as I haven’t sewn since seventh grade. It’s been a wonderful way to give away a little bit of comfort during this scary time.”
Suzzy has recorded about 20 albums, written music for television and film, and toured for more than 40 years. She has acted with the experimental theater company, the Wooster Group, and written a novel (“Wayward Saints”) and a children’s book (“Want to Be in a Band?”). A third book, “The Town Crazy” — described in promotional material as “a novel of passion, absurdity, innocence, and sorrow” — will be released sometime this year.
Lucy, whose father is Loudon Wainwright III, has released five solo recordings, including Little Beast (2018), which won the Independent Music Award for Folk/Singer-Songwriter Album of the Year. She tours often with the Indigo Girls and has made her mark with her rich voice and songwriting talent.
Suzzy observed in late April, on her Facebook page, that “red tulips planted after 9-11” were blooming “to cheer a hurting city.” We see rebirth all around us: children learning to ride bikes, birds chirping, flowers blooming. But it is disorienting to know that, simultaneously, there exists an unavoidable tragic picture with a shocking number of deaths surrounding us, and the sense of living in a society in decline.
After speaking with Suzzy over the past few days, I will think about her hopeful message on Mother’s Day, to “send our love to New Jersey and say, ‘Hang in there, this too shall pass!’,” and remember the women in our lives who are like Mary, who, quoting Griffin, “stays behind and starts cleaning up the place” and is “covered in roses” and “covered in secrets” and “can sing a million songs without any words.”
To show support for Suzzy Roche, visit suzzyroche.com.
To show support for Lucy Wainwright Roche, visit lucywainwrightroche.com.
NJArts.net’s Songs to See Us Through series is designed to spotlight songs relevant to the coronavirus crisis and encourage readers to support the artists who made them (and won’t be able to generate income via concerts at this time). Click here for links to all songs in the series.
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